In the shadow of Paradise, nearby residents make uneasy peace with fire

·6-min read

The Dixie fire was consuming vast swaths of land in the Sierra Nevada foothills, but in the nearby valley city of Chico, California, it was a typical summer day.

The temperature had already climbed past 102F and a dusting of smoke was pushing air quality to unhealthy levels. Yet at the One Mile city park on Wednesday, college students lay in the shade of oak trees, kids splashed around Sycamore Pool and cyclists raced by.

“We look at the statistics every day. We watch the fires. But we’ve been in that weird version of denial,” said Laura Cootsona, the director of the Jesus Center, a non-profit serving homeless people in the city.

Devastating deadly blazes have battered this northern California region almost annually since 2018. The increasingly severe summers and falls in towns such as Chico and Paradise offer a warning of what’s to come in other cities as the climate crisis intensifies.

Chico has grown accustomed to disaster in its periphery after the 2018 Camp fire, which killed 85 people, destroyed the nearby town of Paradise and sent thousands of fire refugees into Chico permanently. Last year, 16 people perished in the nearby North Complex fire. This year, the Dixie fire has already scorched 221,504 acres, forcing thousands to evacuate and destroying more than 40 buildings.

Firefighters bustle out of an incident command center at the fairgrounds and fly overhead in helicopters and planes. Signs around town thank them for their service, and sometimes citizens do too – young men walking out of a downtown bar cheered loudly for passing engines over the weekend. Others sell fire-themed T-shirts to firefighters and donate profits to firefighting groups and fire victims.

Then there’s the smoke. Chico resident Serena Marie Hary reminds her children to drink extra water on smoky days and to wear masks to protect them from harmful particles.

The smoke has been constant over the last few years, said Chico State student Leslie Salazar. “It bothers you how strong and thick it is, but you still come out and enjoy life.”

Signs thanking firefighters are seen in Quincy, California, at the Dixie Fire, in Quincy, California on 27 July, 2021.
Signs thanking firefighters are seen in Quincy, California, at the Dixie Fire, in Quincy, California on 27 July, 2021. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Chico itself has changed. After the Camp fire, the university town grew by more than 10,000 people, to more than 110,000, the equivalent of at least 15 years of population growth overnight, Chico’s city manager, Mark Orme said. Traffic and collisions, waste management and sewage use surged. The area’s housing stock, already tight before, quickly dwindled.

“It’s still a welcoming community. I think the fabric is still intact for the quality of life,” said Orme. “But there are facets of having a smaller community that change: the commute no longer takes five minutes, it takes 10.”

Many residents are still struggling to adapt to the constant presence of disaster.

“It’s part of the natural rhythm nowadays,” said Hary. “It’s nerve-racking, even though we’re really not in danger where we’re at.”

Three maps of northern California showing growth of Dixie fire on July 21, July 25, and July 30.

‘You just prepare yourself’

On the Paradise Ridge, too, reminders of the devastation of wildfire are all around.

About 6,000 people live in Paradise today, and 11,000 up the road in Magalia, which was also devastated by flames. Businesses have reopened across town and there are nearly 1,000 new homes. Though the streets have long been cleared of ashes and shells of burned cars, the empty spaces that stretch down Skyway, the town’s main thoroughfare, and signs for restaurants that no longer exist reveal what the fire took from Paradise.

Skyway Antique Mall was one of the few businesses in town to survive the Camp fire, and reopened last year. “I’ve been at it for so long and I just love the business and the interaction with the people,” said Bille Estrada, the shop’s owner.

“People are on edge,” Estrada said. Earlier this week phones buzzed across the store as evacuation alerts went out, but they were for a town a few hours away.

Outside the antiques shop, Donald and Michele Carmack were visiting Paradise for the first time since the fire. Donald’s brothers had lived there before and one was considering returning.

“They’re worried but you just prepare yourself and do the best you can,” Michele said, as they surveyed the street, trying to find the location of a burned down business they had once visited.

The Dixie Fire burns near Taylorsville, California, on 29 July, 2021
The Dixie Fire burns near Taylorsville, California, on 29 July, 2021 Photograph: David Swanson/Reuters

Up the road in Magalia, Holly Baker sat inside the fire resource center as the smell of smoke wafted through the air. Shelves of canned peaches and pears, oat cereal, boxed milk and sourdough loaves line the walls of the building, a converted firehouse, and are available free of charge to any Butte county resident affected by wildfires, present and past.

The firehouse is one of the oldest buildings in Magalia and survived the 2018 fire thanks to the efforts of local resident John Sedwick, a former volunteer firefighter who saved the building before later perishing outside his nearby home.

Baker, who lost her home and beloved 13-year-old cat Mimi in the Camp fire, has struggled to stay on the Ridge with fires burning nearby for the past two summers. “I dread summer. There’s nothing to enjoy any more.”

Her job as a volunteer at the center has provided a sense of purpose, she said as she waved to a visitor, Alice Nutt, 65, who showed off the dress she had received on another visit to the center. Nutt was feeling nervous too. She shares a motor home with her husband, mother and two dogs, so that if there is another fire, she can drive her home away. “We’re survivors,” Nutt said.

Baker was more hesitant. “I still have family in the area and that makes it hard, so I try to tough it out, but I’d like to move because I can’t do this every summer.”

Laura Cootsona, the homeless aid coordinator, is worried about the dual threat of the fires and the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic, and the recent rise in cases, have made ongoing fire disasters more difficult to deal with, she said. “I think for me I really feel the compounding sense of: we are not getting out of this crisis. This isn’t ending. None of this is ending. We’re still having fires, we still have displaced people from the fires. And Covid … it’s not good.”

Her organization provides housing to survivors from the northern California fires of the past two years, and people continue to need support. Part of Cootsona’s job is to give hope to the the community, while preparing for the inevitable next disaster, she said. “I think fire is the only thing we can count on.”

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